The Big Happiness Interview: Dr Sherry Walling on how to manage grief

The Big Happiness Interview: Dr Sherry Walling on how to manage grief

I lost both my parents to cancer when I was a teenager so have always been obsessed by books that help you understand grief.

Having just read Touching Two Worlds: A Guide for Finding Hope in the Landscape of Loss by clinical psychologist Dr Sherry Walling, I want to buy it and give to everyone who has lost someone.

As a clinical therapist, Sherry knew the theory of loss but when she lost her father to cancer at 65 and her brother to suicide six months later, she started to plot a new landscape of grief and how to navigate it. In Touching Two Worlds, she gives us practical tools of how to function when the world as you know it has been shattered and your heart is broken.

‘Grief is one of the few human certainties, but most of us are terrible at grieving,’ she tells us. ‘We bury mum on Saturday and are back in the office by Tuesday.

‘I wanted to write a book to help modern people re-learn how to grieve with suggestions and strategies to help us meaningfully engage with grief without losing touch with day-to-day life.’

Here, she chats with us about finding healthy ways to grieve.

How do we manage our lives when we are grieving?

No quick moves. Grief is a slowly unfolding transformation.

I see a grieving person like the butterfly in the cocoon. You need to give time and space to see what unfolds, knowing that there are lots of different impulses and instincts that come up in the course of grief but that may not be life plans yet. Take a year before you make any big leaps in your life.

Keeping a journal is a really important practice during grief. Write about what’s coming up for you. Often, we may have strong feelings and want to make big decisions. Write about it instead: ‘I’m having these feelings that I would like to leave my husband. I’m not sure what this is about but I’m just going to hold this idea for a while and let it incubate.’

When we’re writing about our lives, we’re keeping track of those things, but don’t have the burden of action. We’re taking them seriously by writing them down, but not so seriously that we’re acting on them immediately.

How can you help someone who has lost someone they’ve loved?

Always invite the person to talk about who they’ve lost. Many people feel they don’t want to remind their friends that they have lost their loved ones, but it can come across like they have forgotten or don’t care.

The invitation to talk specifically about the person that died is important. But it’s not – ‘if you ever want to talk, give me a call’. That’s not specific enough. Ask questions and give them prompts like ‘tell me your favourite memory’.

Take a year before you make any big leaps in your life

If a friend is struggling with loss, sometimes you feel like you don’t want to intrude… what’s the best way to support them?

Spread your help and support over time. In the first two weeks, there’s a lot of help. Then people’s attention goes to other things.

But it’s usually the six-to-eight-week mark, where people are settling in to a new normal. That’s when the deep sadness takes over from the shock. And it’s in that window of six weeks to maybe three months it’s really helpful to have friends be extra attentive. But be really wary of the generic ‘how are you?’ questions.

Instead, be specific – ‘How are the holidays feeling this year’,‘What has surprised you most about the way you feel after the loss of your sister?

Sometimes it’s tough because you simply don’t know what to say.

Then say that. I’ve found it really helpful when they people literally say: ‘I don’t know what to say but I have two hours absolutely free to talk or take a walk or do anything you’d like’.

A friend who didn’t know what to say to me made me a playlist on Spotify. It was made up of songs that helped her feel grounded when she was sad. It was a beautiful, soulful gift from her heart to mine.

Is it useful to send gifts?

Yes. Because loss is the absence of something, the presence of things feels oddly helpful. For example, when I was grieving, my friend sent me a simple seashell necklace. Holding the tangible thing helps counterbalance the untethered feeling that goes along with reaching out for someone who used to be there but isn’t there anymore.

How do you help your children grieve when you’re grieving yourself?

Try a simple narration of what’s happening. Give them language for what you’re doing. ‘I’m travelling a lot to take care of my parents who are ill, or I’m feeling quite sad, because I’m missing my own mother. So today, I’m going to stay in bed longer.’ Give a little bit of narration, an explanation for what they’re observing.

Most of us assume that children don’t notice but they notice much more than we realise but understand less than we realise. Helping them have an external understanding of what they are observing helps.

Also understand that when a grandparent dies, children will be afraid that you will die too. Speak as directly as possible to acknowledge and speak to that fear.

For example, ‘just because grandma died doesn’t mean that mum and dad are going to die any time soon’.

Our collective mental health would be radically improved if we could experience deep pain and grief without feeling that we will get permanently stuck in those dark places

How do you support people who have just had a serious diagnosis and have to undergo treatment?

I think words of support are better when they’re process oriented, not outcome oriented. Instead of saying: ‘it’s going to be okay, we’re going to fight this thing’ try, ‘I am with you every step of the way, no matter what comes’. Because you’re not in control of what happens.

There can be a lot of pressure to ‘fight’ the disease but sometimes it’s better to phrase it like ‘if you choose to do chemo – I will show up, I will come, I will drive you to your appointments and I will sit by you. But it’s also not the only path. I’m okay with all the choices, this is your journey. I’m here for it. I’m here to support you’.

When you’re struggling with supporting someone dying, how do you manage your own mental health?

It’s important to maintain your own joyful practices – whether that’s yoga or frisbee with the dog. I called the book ‘touching two worlds’ because there’s a sense of moving back and forth. ‘I am supporting someone who is sick and who is dying and then I also can move to this alternative reality in which I am a very alive person with a career that I love and beautiful children.’ Both can be absolutely true at the same time.

It helps with the problem of feeling like you’re going to be drowned in grief or get lost in it. If you actively exercise being in both worlds, you feel like you’re not going to get stuck forever in the grief.

What is the connection between grief and happiness?

I feel much more alive for having spent so much time close to death. You shed a lot of anxieties or worries that really aren’t important in the grand scheme of the world.

I feel more free, more present in my life, and much more protective of my own joy.

Happiness is so precious, and it’s not guaranteed. So, I choose to lean into that in a different way than I did in the past.

What do you wish that everyone knew about grieving?

Our collective mental health would be radically improved if we could experience deep pain and grief without feeling that we will get permanently stuck in those dark places.

Our cultural aversion to grief leaves us believing that it’s dangerous and that we shouldn’t give oxygen to the anguish inside of us. It is the unaddressed grief that becomes dangerous.

How do you start to address it?

One technique that helps is time travelling. Grief, trauma and loss distort time. We need to flex our capability to imagine the future. What will be happening in your life one year from now? Five years? 10 years?

Our ability to envision our future self has an important protective power for mental health and for all future orientated life decisions. The capacity to image the future draws from our capacity to hope.

Let yourself imagine your way to a different era of your life. Your power to envision change over time will help prevent you from feeling stuck in the permanence of your current pain.

You’ve not always lived in grief. You won’t always feel your grief in this way. It will change.

What to do when you’re feeling overwhelmed by grief

In rough moments, consider placing your current anguish in context of past and present. It’s a simple process that makes concrete the moments and phrases in your life. You’ve been somewhere else before; you’ll be somewhere else again. Today is what it is. If you’re miserable, accept that. But know in your bones, it isn’t permanent.

Past: Five years ago, today…. E.g., I was camping in Norwich and I was swimming in the sea.

Present: Today I am…. E.g., Struggling to get out of bed, feeling bad about feeling bad

Future: 1 month/1 year/10 years from now….E.g. I will be at conference in Leeds/I will be celebrating my friend’s birthday/I will be at my child’s graduation.

Touching Two Worlds: A Guide for Finding Hope in the Landscape of Loss (Sounds True, £13.99) is out now.

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